Duluth could learn a lot from RustinROBIN WASHINGTON: Just before returning his call last week, I suddenly recalled that Walter Naegle had first introduced himself to me 20 years ago as Bayard Rustin’s “son” — and that news stories identified him as such when the civil rights leader died in 1987.
By: Robin Washington, Duluth News Tribune
Just before returning his call last week, I suddenly recalled that Walter Naegle had first introduced himself to me 20 years ago as Bayard Rustin’s “son” — and that news stories identified him as such when the civil rights leader died in 1987.
I reminded Naegle of that when I reached him in Greensboro, N.C., where he was attending a forum marking Saturday’s centennial of Rustin’s birth.
“Things have changed, oh sure,” said Naegle, now well known as Rustin’s partner for the last decade of his life. “The reason we did the adoption was as a way of legalizing our
relationship. In some states now, Bayard wouldn’t have had to adopt me. We could have gotten married.”
To back up to the basics:
Bayard Rustin was one of the architects of the Civil Rights Movement and its major strategist. He co-led the first Freedom Ride in 1947, when Martin Luther King Jr. was still a teenager, then advised King
10 years later during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and again in 1963, working behind the scenes to bring 250,000 people to the March on Washington.
He also was gay and rarely hid it, though it would be a mistake to call him a gay activist.
“That’s true,” said Naegle, who came out to his parents by saying, “I’m gay, he’s black, and he’s older than you are.”
“Some people refer to him as a black gay activist. But to convey the impression that he was some kind of leader in the gay rights movement is not accurate and not fair to the people who were,” Naegle said.
Aside from the era, one reason Rustin did not advocate strongly for gay rights was that it brought him into serious conflict with King’s fellow black ministers in the Civil Rights Movement, in particular Adam Clayton Powell, who was also a congressman from Harlem.
“Let me tell you,” King’s aide Clarence Jones is quoted as saying of a 1960 dispute in a new book, “I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters,” edited by Michael G. Long (City Lights). “Adam Clayton Powell’s attitude toward homosexuality was prototypical of black ministers of that time. They had no hesitation about speaking about homosexuality publicly and denigrating it in a public speech.”
Powell won, forcing a pained Rustin to part ways with King. But ever the strategist, Rustin did it for the good of the movement, shifting gears to find other ways to tackle issues more important than his friendship with King, such as the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.
Which brings us to Duluth today. Two months ago, an ambitious effort to fight racism was launched with Duluth’s Un-Fair Campaign. Its billboards got everyone’s attention, as did the backlash of the white supremacists’ rally two weeks ago and the backlash against the
backlash with everything from snowballs against skinheads to bagels at the bridge.
Duluth could have used a Rustin, if not a King.
“You were giving these guys what they wanted,” Naegle said when told of Duluth’s mixed messages of how to greet, or not greet, the supremacists. “They didn’t want a united opposition. They wanted a fragmented community.”
Disclaiming that he cannot speak for Rustin, Naegle is still enough of his protégé to understand that mass campaigns demand clear goals.
“What was the purpose of putting (the billboards) up in the first place? What did they hope to accomplish in the long run?” he asked. “If the whole idea is to bring the community together to discuss x, y and z, you want to create an atmosphere where people feel safe. Maybe not comfortable, but at least where they don’t feel threatened.”
That includes enlisting unlikely allies, something Rustin did in bringing to the March on Washington everyone from Charlton Heston to Walter Ruether of the United Auto Workers, when unions weren’t widely perceived as advocates for black civil rights.
It also means preparing for unforeseen events by considering “everything that might go wrong, every wrench in the works,” Naegle said of Rustin’s strategic thinking — employed in dealing with fissures in the movement and adversity in his own life. One was coming up with a way to legally pass his inheritance on to the man he loved.
In that light, Rustin gave us a lifetime of scenarios, tactics and strategies. A century after his birth is as good a time as any to look them up.
Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.